Nicole Bray of Mercer Contemporary The Art of Acquisitions and the Value of the Contemporary Curator


By Catherine J. Wagner

When you consider an art curator, you tend to think beyond decorative skills or a flair for design. A curator must know and understand a vision, tap in to a deep well of knowledge, find the right piece to add to a collection, and ultimately, bring the savvy, sound, and sensible dealings of a financier to close the sale. Art, after all, is something we live with, and since a collection will define a collector’s spirit and style long after the collector is no longer, the practice of acquisition in and of itself becomes increasingly important as the truly excellent finds become ever more evasive. Today, the value of a gifted curator cannot be underestimated.

Enter Nicole Bray: the definitive contemporary art curator.

Carrying the accolades of a Masters of Contemporary Art (with honors) from Sotheby’s, recognized by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation with an Emerging Curator Fellowship in 2015, and recently awarded a Curator-In-Residence Fellowship with the Curatorial Program for Research in Mexico City, Nicole Bray comes to the industry with a wealth of knowledge and the quick wits and intelligence to know how to use it. Rejoicing in the constantly evolving landscape of today’s art industry and with a considerable knack for finding the gems, Bray maintains her curatorial practice at Mercer Contemporary while contributing regularly to several publications, including this one. Her unique voice is quickly becoming a source of the latest definition of the living, breathing concept of “art” while day-to-day you’ll find her building the collections of a distinguished private family of collectors. I would advise to try and keep up, but you won’t have to. Nicole Bray is the “It” girl in the industry who could explain exactly what “It” is (but won’t for obvious reasons), not that it matters because she is gracious enough to bring the rest of us to the party.

Recently, in my search to define the true value of a curator, I had the privilege of sitting down with Nicole and was able to garner some insight in to her curatorial process:

CATHERINE WAGNER: How do you discover the collector’s objective? Or how do you help the collector discover their own direction in collecting?

NICOLE BRAY: Collecting is an extension of your own personal history and creative expression. Building a collection should give a glimpse into your personality, demonstrate what intellectually stimulates you, and express your definition of beauty. The first question I like to ask is, “what artwork has stayed with you long after seeing it? Why?”. This taps into the power of visuals and the emotions or intellectual stimuli that it can conjure up. My role is to then contextualize each piece in the specific artists’ body of work and in the canon of art history, “why is this artist or piece important?”, then we connect this artist to other artists both historically and present. Finally, where the fun begins, we give the collector access to those works in an (intentionally) difficult art market.

CATHERINE WAGNER: What advice would you give a collector just starting out?

NICOLE BRAY: There is a difference between buying art and collecting art. Collecting art is a long-term commitment grounded in a vision and custodianship of the artwork. Good collectors acknowledge that they like certain types of art regardless of what or who seems to be the current trend. I’ve always stated that buying young artists work at a hyper-inflated price is like betting on Justin Bieber, you have no idea where their career is going to go. All great collectors share follow their own path and this makes their collections stand out. Exceptional collectors educate themselves on the artists and artworks and follow their personal tastes, ignoring the status quo. When a collector follows the masses, the art you see from collection to collection becomes boring and repetitive. Collectors who aren’t afraid to truly express themselves yield exactly the opposite results. I would also advise, regardless of how much you know about what you collect already, always remember the educational process is ongoing. Be an informed buyer. Take every opportunity to discuss the fine points of a piece with as many different experts, curators, artists, collectors, gallery personnel and other informed industry people as possible. Not only does this improve your abilities to separate the great art from the good, and the not so good, you also learn how to protect yourself against being taken advantage of in the marketplace.

CATHERINE WAGNER: What is your personal objective in collecting?

NICOLE BRAY: My personal art collection centers around the idea of Warrior Women, strong female artists who are redefining sexuality, identity, and personal narratives. Some of the artists included are Mira Dancy, Keltie Ferris, Sojourner Truth Parsons, and Katherine Bradford. Currently, I have my eye on Tshabalala Self for my next acquisition. It is true, always buy what you love, but more importantly you must believe in the artist and their practice. The artwork is an expression of the artist and without understanding who they truly are, the artwork cannot be truly understood.

Mira Dancy, Bedroom Bend, 2015.

Keltie Ferris, Titans, 2015

Sojourner Truth Parsons, She’s Still Crying, 2016

CATHERINE WAGNER: Which artist do you feel is the most overlooked or undervalued in the world today and why?

NICOLE BRAY: In terms of collectors and the market, I believe John Cage is the most overlooked and undervalued. Any art professional will expound how important John Cage’s writings and works were to the New York art and music scene in the mid-twentieth century. He was the high-priest of the art community, expanding the theories and definitions of what can be considered art and nurturing the careers of important artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Allan Kapprow and George Brecht. His work is complex and grounded in performance and chance, namely the Fluxus and Conceptual Art movements. There are few tangible pieces and they are not always seen as “commercial”, but when one does come onto the market the art nerd in me gets very excited.

To contact Nicole Bray please go to:

Catherine Wagner

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